Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Top-Shelf Titans: The Brady Chieffi Interview

Every week, I sit down with other addicts collectors to take a look at their toys and discuss the hobby of toy collecting. This week: Brady Chieffi is our Top-Shelf Titan!

Brady Chieffi is one of those toy collectors who doesn't like to discriminate. His shelves are filled with robots, ray guns, aliens, Japanese monsters, Dr. Seuss models, tin toys, plastic toys, soft vinyl toys, and everything in between. But he's also a discerning collector, a man who trusts his eye to lead him to the pieces he really loves. As a result, he's managed to create a beautiful, cohesive collection out of toys that, at first glance, sometimes appear disparate and unconnected. We've taken this opportunity to sit down with him to discuss his vintage toy ray guns. (Okay, and one great robot!)

DOC ATOMIC So, Brady, what do you like about these toys? 
BRADY CHIEFFI I appreciate toys on many levels; as art, as nostalgia, as a tangible expression of imagination, and simply because they are interesting. Often, when I would go to toy shows, I would be confronted by dealers with the question, "Are you looking for something in particular?" Invariably, my answer would be, "Whatever catches my eye." 

Two of Brady Chieffi's ray guns: (top) The rare green Atom Buster (Webb Electric, 1950s) and (bottom) a beautiful example of the Strato Gun (Futuristic Products, Co., 1950s). (All photos by Brady Chieffi)

I also truly believe that toys are meant to be played with. I never understood the people who hoard away their toys, locking them in some dark, unaccessible vault or closet. I will take a mint-in-box toy out of it’s box -- I have to touch it, look at its ingenious design, feel the curves of its shape. Toys radiate a vitality that never really fades away; the older the toy, the stronger its effect. People often tell me I don't look my age (if you must know, I’m 52). My reply is always the same: "My toys keep me young!" 

What do you love about ray guns? 
They embody all that was good about childhood, and the variety of styles and colors are almost infinite. I cold look at them all day, and they’re even more fun to play with! 

Note the copper-colored Atomic Ray (Tudor Rose, 1950s) in the top right corner!

(Top Left) A very rare Roto-Flash Gun (Renwal, 1950s)

Is there any particular gun that stands out as a favorite?
The first truly beautiful gun I ever owned was the Buck Rogers Liquid Helium Gun (Daisy, 1936). It has the most amazing, whiz-bang paint scheme I’ve ever seen on a toy gun. The bright red overlaid with yellow lightening bolts is the stuff of classic early science fiction comics. The shape of the pistol is downright sexy -- look at those curves! It has all the lines of a great sports car, it moves while standing still. 

Then there's the silver and bronze Pyrotomic Disintegrator (Pyro Plastics, 1952), even though, I sadly confess, the ramrod under the barrel is missing. Nonetheless, it still sends chills of excitement down my arm when I sight down the barrel, squeeze the trigger, and see the toy recoil in all its sci-fi splendor. 

So many guns, so little time! The copper gun in the center is the legendary Pyrotomic Disintegrator (Pyro Plastics, 1952). Two below it is the Buck Rogers XZ-44 Liquid Helium Gun (Daisy, 1936). And bottom left is the world's first toy ray gun, the Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol (Daisy, 1934). Can you name the rest?

As I have few rifles, the ones I own are very nice examples. The Sub-Machine Gun made by Ideal in the Forties is one that stands out. The use of marbled brown plastic to mimic grained wood is particularly eye-catching, as is the futuristic styling. It's not just another machine gun re-worked with a few fins (like the Radar Raider). I also love how the recoil action gives the gun a sense of realism.

The Atomic Ray Pistol (Tudor Rose, 1950s) is another great design. It has all the dials, fins and sliding power-levers a kid could ask for -- even the “screws” were accurately sculpted into the mold. I own the bronze color version, which is harder to find  than the silver one. [No kidding! I'm jealous! -- Doc] I like the fact that it is also a full-scale gun. Many toy guns were designed smaller for a child’s grip, but this fits nicely in my hand.

Of my European pistols, two in particular stand out as favorites. Both are small red plastic guns: a dart gun produced by Gyper in Spain, and a water pistol made by COMA in Italy. The designs are unusual, and both are fairly difficult to find. Uniqueness definitely adds to the attraction, knowing that these are hard to come by. A collector always wants a few pieces that perhaps few people have. 

A stunningly designed water pistol by the Italian company COMA.

Wow, that's quite a collection. What was your first vintage ray gun?
It would have to be XZ-31 Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol made by Daisy in 1934. I remember it being the first space gun I recognized as a true classic. I had seen it on the Toy Ray Gun website (www.toyraygun.com) and thought it just screamed “vintage.” If I was going to start a collection, I would begin with one of the cornerstones of the genre. At the time, the guns were fairly common and could be had at a reasonable price -- I think it cost me $100 and change. 

When I got it, it was like holding a museum piece. I was instantly struck by the weight and heft of the pistol. This was not like any toy I ever had as a kid; in the late Fifties the guns were tin or plastic [The XZ-31 is pressed steel -- Doc]. I very carefully cocked the gun and pulled the trigger -- I was startled by the resounding pop, it was really loud. I found it incredible that a child’s toy from the 1930’s was made this well, and still worked.

Are there any pieces in your collection that you never expected to own?
Surprisingly, there are two -- a robot and a gun. The robot is a Space Giant Robot (Tomy, 1960s). A very nice toy from a child’s standpoint -- it’s big, 29 inches tall, it came in a cardboard toolbox, and you assembled it with a wrench and big red nuts and bolts. The robot is easy to move: aside from it’s wheeled feet, it is made of blown-in-mold plastic and is surprisingly lightweight. It also has handles on the shoulders that allow the arms to be moved up and down, and a trigger that opens the claws. 

I first saw this jumbo toy in a grainy, black and white photo of an old toy store, in a Japanese collector’s magazine. You almost couldn’t make it out, back against the wall, piled behind hundreds of other toys. It was so perfectly classic, a true blockhead robot, and really large. I figured I’d never find one, I’d never seen it before, and no one I spoke with could identify it.

Not one but two Robots by Tomy (1960s). The golden one on the right is particularly rare.

Ten years passed, and I was trolling through eBay late one night...and there it was!  "Wait, this couldn’t be it...Yes, it is! Oh my gosh, I gotta have it! Let’s see, how much can I afford? Well, I can skip meals for a few weeks, no movies, walk to work... Hmmm, this could work, just don’t tell the wife (it has taken her 15 of our 21 years of marriage to come to terms with my toy obsession)." I bid, I won, I paid, and I waited for what seemed like an eternity. Then the package arrived: Eureka! He’s mine, all mine! (cue the childish glee).

And the gun?
Well, that was just recently, in fact. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve spent many hours researching space guns on the Toy Raygun website, and one in particular grabbed my attention. It was made by Ranger Steel Products in the Fifties, a variation on their popular sparkling Cosmic Ray Gun line, but it was like no pistol I’ve ever seen before. It was a cross between a raygun and a Buck Rogers-era cruiser. Made of orange plastic, with yellow fins and a clear red barrel, it was an absolutely stunning design! Unfortunately, I chalked it up as another “untouchable." These kinds of toys just don’t come up for sale, and when they do, well, I just know they'll be way above my level of the food chain.

So rare it hurts: The Ranger Steel ray gun.

So, there I am, locked into that damnable auction site again, the bane of my existence. Lo and behold, what appears to my watering eyes, but the gun of myth. Oh, fer crying out loud, the fates have pierced my heart yet again, dangling my hopes above the jagged rocks, only to snip the golden thread, sending me to my doom (well, it wasn’t exactly like that, but you get the idea).

How would I pay for it? I’ll think of something, but I can’t pass up the opportunity. So I set my maximum bait, and waited for a nibble, and bite they did. I couldn’t watch, I checked in to my eBay page after the war was over, and slowly scrolled down to the “won” photos. Oh geeze, is that the orange tip of the gun’s rear fins?! Yes, ha! I got it. Oh my gosh, now I have to pay for it. Well, I suppose it was worth it, and I can’t wait to hold it in my hand...Zap...Zap, POW!!

When did you start collecting?
Collecting was a natural for me, I’m a pack rat. My Mom started me early, taking me to garage sales and flea markets as a kid and it stuck. Originally, I collected antiques, but didn’t start with toys until I was well out of college and on my second marriage (yes, second, which proves I’m not too smart either). It started innocently enough, when someone gave me this ugly little troll-like figure. I began noticing other painfully ugly figures in shops and stores, and picked them up. This was around the time that the Spawn line was gaining steam, producing monsters and demons. I began calling it my “ugly toy collection.” The rest, as they say, is history.

An unusual, ball-firing ray gun. Note the feeder tube on top with the cut-out lightning bolts.

My passion for ray guns grew out of an innocent accidental discovery of the Toy Ray Gun website. It was a visual and historical feast. I remembered space guns from my childhood, but I had no idea there were so many varieties. I began emailing the great Gene Metcalf, a heck of a nice guy, and a truly passionate collector. [And author of the book Ray Gun -- Doc] We struck up an electronic, long-distance friendship. After a while, I was hooked, happily and hopelessly. Within a year I had gone from no guns to over 75 pieces. Then, one day Gene told me he was selling the entire collection, and turning over the site to someone else, I was thunderstruck. We talked a few times after that, but unfortunately, the emails grew fewer and farther between, until we just stopped.

The red Pow'r Pop gun (Glenn, 1951). Chieffi also has the original cork!

A fine example of the Rex Mars Signal gun (Marx, 1950s).

What advice would you pass on to another collector?
To quote an old, dear dealer friend who passed away many years ago, "If you are doing this to get rich, you are in the wrong business." Collecting, while a sometimes troubling itch that can’t be scratched, is an exuberant experience understood by few. It’s not what the item is worth intrinsically, but what it is worth to you. Is that toy you’re looking at really worth $100? Or, perhaps, much more, with the excitement of the hunt and blissful joy of the acquisition? Someone else may say it’s overpriced, but to you, your inner child -- oh man, it’s priceless! 

Search, think, and pace yourself. Remember, buy the best you can afford, but buy what you love, because if you don’t love it, no price, no matter how high or low, will make it worth anything.

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